published Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Cook: Resurrection in slow motion

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Kayla Austin sits with 14-year old Esteven Flores while talking about plans to move to Honduras for mission work.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Kayla Austin sits with 14-year old Esteven Flores while talking about plans to move to Honduras for mission work.
Photo by Dan Henry.

TO LEARN MORE

Visit Project 541's website at project541.org

It was love at first sight.

She was a long-haired college student from America. Just shy of 20, she'd spent months volunteering in Honduras, living with disabled kids and orphans. The amputees. The girl with club feet. The abandoned infants. She felt at home there with them. At peace.

He was a boy from a nearby village. Born with cerebral palsy, his legs were crooked and his arms bent, like question marks. His parents often padlocked him in a room. His sister snuck him food, but not enough. At 11, he only weighed 23 pounds.

When Kayla Austin first saw Esteven Flores, he was being carried in the arms of his sister as she walked the dirt road toward the orphanage.

His body was covered in sores from years spent lying in his own urine and feces.

He was famine-thin. Coughing. Bleeding. Half-dead.

And in that moment, Kayla saw nothing but beauty.

And in that moment, everything fell into place inside her heart.

"Immediately," Kayla said.

That was two years and 3,000 miles ago. Today, Esteven is as healthy as a team of horses, thanks to Kayla. And Kayla, who is about to graduate from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is living a life richer than 1,000 Faberges, thanks to Esteven.

"I want to care for him," she whispered to herself on that dirt road morning.

What really happened: little Esteven started caring for her.

Esteven's village -- near Puerto Lempira on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras -- is raw. No paved roads. Only a dirt runway. Past the coconut and mango trees, drug traffickers hide in the jungle. There's a hospital, but barely.

"They don't have alcohol swabs," Kayla said. "They were doing C-sections, and the pain medication was Tylenol."

Since her first mission trip there, Kayla was hooked. Something about the beautiful honesty of the place and people -- the way they live, so close to things -- shook awake a part of her that lay asleep in America. She found things in Puerto Lempira: God, meaning, herself.

She wanted to stay. Her parents (dad works at Kenco, mom at Bright School) wanted her in college. They compromised: She'd go one semester at UTC, the next in Honduras. Back and forth, from America her home, to Honduras, where her heart was, until she earned a degree.

All the while, Esteven lay alone and hungry in the padlocked dark.

Two miles away, Kayla was working for House of Hope, a half-school, half-orphanage for disabled and neglected children.

On the day she sees Esteven -- his sister carrying him down the dirt road -- she thinks: He won't live much longer. His family tells her: You can have him.

She bathes him, clothes him, feeds him fortified rice. He eats. And eats. And eats.

"He gained 10 pounds in the first two weeks," she said.

For months, he does not leave her side. It is resurrection in slow motion: He grows healthy, strong, alive.

And as Kayla realizes that precious Esteven will not die, she shudders at what must happen next.

She has to return for her final semester in Chattanooga.

On their last day together, she hugs him the entire way back to his home. She can't stop crying, her tears falling near his crooked body, as she whispers in his ear:

Don't die. I'm coming back for you. I promise. I promise. I promise I'm coming back for you.

Back at UTC, she stays in contact with House of Hope folks, always asking about Esteven. One day, she learns that Esteven's dad sold the toys and clothes she'd left for him.

"For drugs," she said.

Enough, she says to herself. Enough! Kayla begins the process of arranging a medical visa for Esteven, so that he can come and live with her in the United States. She finds him physical therapists. Fills out mountains of paperwork.

One thing left: Esteven's parents.

She returns to Puerta Lempira, and then goes with Esteven's mother to the nearby U.S. embassy. A few signatures later, and Esteven is given a medical visa to the United States and Kayla becomes his legal guardian.

But really, she's his mom.

Since January 2013, Esteven has lived with Kayla and her roommate in their Chattanooga home. She's taught him sign language and can't find a food he doesn't love. Physical therapists are always coming by. He rides in a new wheelchair. They visit the aquarium. She reads him bedtime stories. He never stops smiling.

"He is like this little key that unlocks the goodness in people," she said. "He's living proof that second chances exist."

On May 3, Kayla graduates from UTC with a degree in nonprofit management.

Two weeks later, she and Esteven are going back to Puerta Lempira.

Odds are, they'll stay there for the rest of forever.

Kayla's starting a group home for neglected women and girls. It's called Project 541 -- they're raising $40,000, and her dad's the board president -- after verses in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus raises a little child from the dead.

It's a beautiful story of love and resurrection. Kayla's got the verses tattooed on her shoulder.

But Esteven wrote them across the walls of her heart.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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